It Shall Rise From the Ashes: A sort-of book review of ‘Detroit: An American Autopsy’

By Brent Glass (@BrentAMG)

American Autopsy

If you have read my bio or know me personally, you are aware that I hail from one of the greatest regions in the world: metro-Detroit. If you are laughing, stop. I don’t say that because I can’t handle it, (trust me, I’ve been the butt of plenty of jokes) but rather for your own good. I’ll explain later.

Recently, I finished the book Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff grew up just outside of Detroit on Joy Road, about 1 mile north of my stomping grounds from ages 7 to 18. A native Detroiter, LeDuff came back to the region after spending some time as a journalist for The New York Times. (Current Detroiters will recognize him from his role as a television journalist on FOX 2.) His book employs his journalistic style through captivating detail and capricious dialogue. The reason I mentioned that this will be a “sort-of book review” is because it is my inspiration for this post, not the crux of the matter.

Detroit always had a certain panache to me. I mean, where else can you readily find loose Coney dogs, hockey rinks, and Faygo pop (yes, it’s called pop)? I love the city but obviously there have been some things going wrong recently… Okay, maybe for the past fifty years.

Detroit peaked in population around 1950 with a population close to 1.9 million people. By then, it already had a storied past: The automotive industry was championed there, the assembly line was cooked-up by Henry Ford, FDR declared Detroit the “arsenal of democracy” during WWII and the American middle-class was born in Southeast Michigan; most cities will not have as much to claim one hundred years from now. However, every peak signals a trough to follow. Every year since 1950, Detroit has had a negative slope. One can only hope that the trough’s low point has been reached and Detroit, once again, will rise from the ashes. (Detroit has suffered three major fires in its history, all due to racial tension. The city’s official motto is Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus which means “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”) One can hope.

BANKRUPT. That’s what, I’m sure, most people now think when they hear the name of Detroit. Let’s go through some facts. Everyone knows Detroit is in dire straits (funny, since “Detroit” means “straits” in French) but consider the numbers. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, some officials estimate as much as $20 billion of debt. The official unemployment rate for the city is over double that of the national average and unofficially estimated to be over 30 percent (estimated by Mayor Dave Bing, no less). Forty percent of people in Detroit are on food stamps. Over 78,000 buildings have been abandoned or are unoccupied. There are now less than 700,000 residents of the city (recall the peak of 1.9 million). I could continue but I won’t in order to spare you from any more depressing thoughts. There are many factors that contributed to the deterioration of the once-bustling epitome of American affluence. Hundreds of books can, and have, been written on such topics. But why focus on the past? Detroit needs to focus on the here-and-now. Currently, there are plenty of people adversely affecting the city’s well-being and even more people that should be taking Detroit’s woes seriously. Detroit: A Broken City.

“Claimin’ Detroit when y’all live twenty miles away!” said Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem. Mr. Mathers, of course, was dissing members of the Insane Clown Posse who claimed to be from Detroit when, in fact, they were born in Ferndale (some 15 miles outside of the city limits). Detroit certainly did not need the Insane Clown Posse to further spoil its legacy, but the overarching message of Marshall’s statement is flawed. We need more people to claim Detroit, even if they live twenty thousand miles away.

One of the obstacles that Detroit faces is that it has been labeled as broken, dilapidated, and utterly flawed. Furthermore, it seems as if those whom are a negative influence on society (such as the Insane Clown Posse) are the ones who like to claim Detroit. (Now do not, for one millisecond, believe that I think all those proud to be Detroiters are negative people.) Growing up just outside of Detroit, I heard many people quickly disown the city, clarifying they were from Canton, Livonia, or some suburb downriver; as if that would free them from the responsibility of what is happening just down the street. Why? Why was it easier to garner support for aide to foreign countries than for the city that built Southeast Michigan? Detroit: A Forgotten City.

The people of Detroit are proud. They have a faith in themselves and their ability to govern themselves. Under any other circumstances, this would be perfectly acceptable. It is a God-given and quintessentially American right. However, the people of Detroit have proved to be inept at electing qualified officials… when they showed up to vote, that is. For the 2009 mayoral election there was a 14 percent voter turnout. During my research I found that many Detroiters did not want any help from “outsiders.” Regardless of what the “insiders” think, Southeast Michigan needs to start behaving like a family. Detroit: A Desperate City.

Why is Detroit so important? The American middle-class began in Detroit and it spread to the rest of the country. Now the middle-class is dying (dead?) in Detroit. Do you suppose it will stop there? No matter where you live, when you look at the dark, decrepit city of Detroit you could be viewing your own future. Detroit has a knack for starting trends. This one may not be very innovative. It’s time America started to care about Detroit. Detroit: An American Autopsy.

LeDuff highlighted many of these sentiments with compelling real-life encounters with Detroiters. Like a true journalist, LeDuff exposed corruption and worked to shed light on some of the most taboo aspects of Detroit. Detroit: An American Autopsy read like a murder mystery and at other times, a political thriller. It was similar to Netflix’s House of Cards in that respect. However, the events in this book — no matter how outrageous they seem — are true. This book offered a fresh perspective on the great city that has become the laughing stock of America. He did not sugarcoat the corruption and evil that run rampant in the city, despite his affection for Motown. His motive was (and continues to be) honest: root out the evil in a struggling city. Charlie LeDuff is good for Detroit. LeDuff has hope.

So next time you laugh at Detroit, just remember that you’re laughing at yourself. 4.5/ 5

Grantland contributor, Rembert Browne, is conducting a tour of America.  Recently he just visited Detroit.  Read his perspective here:

Skyline Detroit

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is beginning a marketing project designed to expand the reach of Sagamore Institute and Eureka College, creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in either public policy, political science or business.


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  1. Even on a Cloudy Day: A Weekend in Detroit | Saying Something

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